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Tonic DNA: “Great Animation Travels From Your Heart To Your Hand”



LBB goes behind the scenes of the Montreal-based animation powerhouse to find out how Tonic DNA is drawing on its thirty-seven years of animation expertise, and putting storytelling at the heart of its craft

Tonic DNA: “Great Animation Travels From Your Heart To Your Hand”

It should come as no surprise to find one of the world’s most talented and creatively respected animation studios nestled in Montreal. This, of course, is the birthplace of IMAX and Toon Boom, the company which created the Emmy Award-winning Harmony animation software. 

Carrying on in the city’s proud tradition of animation and innovation, then, is Tonic DNA. Initially formed 37 years ago and rebranded as Tonic DNA in 2018, the studio has been behind some of the most creatively ambitious and eye-catching animated projects of the past few decades. With an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film sitting in the awards cabinet, the studio has gone from employing fewer than 20 people to 120. And, while their roots remain planted in Montreal’s tradition for animation, Tonic DNA now works with directors and clients all across the globe.  

To go behind the scenes at one of the industry’s most unique and passionate animation houses, LBB spoke to the studio’s co-founder and EP Bernard Lajoie, and co-owners and EPs Stefanie Bitton and Howard Huxham. 

Above: The studio’s new reel for 2021

A Different Dimension

“I’ve always believed”, explains Bernard Lajoie, “that great animation travels from your heart to your hand. Through something you might call a soul. That’s what inspired me to pursue a career doing it, and I’m so proud of how the company we’ve built today encapsulates that”.

It’s true that, for Tonic DNA, passion is at the heart of their studio. Having been operating for almost four decades, the team has had a front-row seat to watch their craft evolve alongside technology. For example, the company created the first-ever animated film to be shown in IMAX. Despite the ever-changing landscape and technical solutions, however, their passion has always remained rooted in that desire to compose quality animation. Whilst the company has a strong track record with 3D animated projects, the magic of 2D continues to inspire the studio.

“I think we’re seeing a real renaissance for 2D right now”, says Stefanie Bitton, “and it couldn’t be more exciting and energising for us. I think you had this big swing, maybe 20 years ago now, towards 3D animation because it tended to look incredibly polished and eye-catching. But now it almost feels like the pendulum has swung back, perhaps driven by a desire for something ‘real’ and ‘organic’. 2D can provide that and we just love working with it”.

“I definitely think there’s something in that”, agrees Howard Huxham. “We’ve been keeping traditional 2D animation alive - perhaps one of the few studios to really do so - for the last 20 years. So given our history and our passion for hand-drawn work, we couldn’t be in a better place to step up and be a part of this 2D renaissance”.

Soul Purpose

Hand-crafted animation, then, is in Tonic DNA’s - well - DNA. Surprisingly, however, it’s not how the studio picked its name. “For us, DNA stands for directors and animators”, says Stefanie. “Because at the end of the day that’s what we are. A collection of some of the most passionate directors and animators you can find, all united by a goal to inspire through animation. And to make sure we’re having fun at the same time!”.

One doesn’t need to spend much time speaking to the trio to get a sense of Tonic DNA’s unique ethos and identity. “I think it would be hard for a studio to run for thirty-seven years without developing its own character”, notes Bernard. “And ours comes from the culmination of everyone at the company’s desire to express themselves creatively. Even our IT department is creative! We’ve built this culture, I believe, that instinctively lets people know they are free to develop and flex their creative muscles. At the end of the day, that’s the secret to reinvention and staying part of this industry for nearly forty years”.

To those at the heart of it, the company’s embrace of creativity and expression has clear and obvious benefits. “It really stands out to me”, says Howard, “because I think we’ve all been at places where it hasn’t been the case, perhaps because priorities have been placed elsewhere. The word I’d use to describe it is safety. Not safety in the sense of making safe choices or being conservative with ideas, but more in the sense of knowing you have the safety to take a creative risk, and to experiment. I don’t think you can really put a price on that in this industry”.

That respect for new ideas and inclusivity is also represented through the company’s long-standing approach to women in animation. “Of course, we’re a diverse studio and we’re living in a city which is very multicultural”, notes Stefanie. “As a female business owner, though, I’m absolutely proud that more than 50% of our employees are female, particularly given the industry we work in. Our employees are a representation of our beliefs, and we encourage everyone to bring their culture and their beliefs into the studio with them”.

Legacy DNA

“I think we’ve got a really strong track record to look back on when it comes to our work in advertising”, says Stefanie. “I’m thinking especially of Alexander Petrov’s Coca-Cola ad and his work for United Airlines which really set out his stall in terms of that amazing oil-painted animation style which we also saw with The Old Man and the Sea. In more recent terms, I think our work for WhatsApp and Campbell’s showcases the talent of our animators in an amazing way”.

Above: A heartwarming recent Campbells spot showcases Tonic DNA’s 3D animation chops.

That fundamental passion and thoughtfulness has seen Tonic DNA consistently create best-in-class animation over the past thirty seven years. In recent years, however, that has coincided with an expansion into longform content.

With high-profile projects including WB’s Animaniacs (HULU) reboot and Green Eggs & Ham (WBA and Netflix), as well as Looney Tunes (WBA and HBO Max) and Central Park (Bento Box, Fox, and Apple TV+) the studio has made its mark. “We started working in longform in around 2016”, recalls Howard, “and I would say it’s had two major impacts on us as a studio. Firstly, it really feels like you’re flexing the storytelling muscles you’ve been building up through your advertising work. Ads teach you to be streamlined in your storytelling and that’s such a powerful skill, and working in longform doesn’t mean you suddenly go back on that and make it bloated. You’re not telling the same story over more time, you’re simply telling more.

“Secondly, it’s had a huge impact on us internally. I think it’s fair to say that our plans for growth which we were thinking about happening over the course of the next five years or so have happened over the past twelve months. We’ve quadrupled our staff over a short period of time, which has been amazing and given us a great impetus. It’s incredibly exciting, looking forward”.

Above: Tonic DNA was enlisted alongside Warner Bros. Animation to provide animation for Netflix’s adaptation of Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham.

In the meantime, however, it should come as little surprise that a studio with Tonic DNA’s pedigree is being called upon for high-profile projects. Looking back over the studio’s history, it’s clear that the Oscar® win for The Old Man and the Sea didn’t happen in a vacuum.

“It’s hard to look at one project specifically as being the most significant for us”, says Bernard. “For many of our animators I know working on the reboot of Looney Tunes was a big one. There are a lot of our team who grew up watching it, so to find themselves animating it was an affirming process. On the same lines, we’ve been bringing characters to life who have voice talent such as Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, and Adam DeVine in recent times - some of the biggest and best names out there. And we’re currently working on two big feature projects we can talk more about when the time comes, as well as developing our own IP. It’s rewarding stuff, and it shows how bright the future is”. 

Above: The studio picked up the 2000 Oscar® for Best Animated Short Film for The Old Man and the Sea, adapted from the Ernest Hemingway novella of the same name. 

Repeating History

Having worked at the company since its inception, Bernard is in a unique position to address the company’s journey - and chart its future. 

“If you travelled back in time and showed me the company we’d go on to become”, he says, “I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised - proud and happy, but not surprised. Maybe a little bit to the extent that animation in Montreal isn’t what it is now, so we were pioneers in that sense. But I knew at the start we would be reinventing ourselves, and I’ve no doubt that’s what we will continue to do”.

Reinvention, then, is the only certainty for an animation studio with creativity and expression in its soul. 

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TONIC DNA, Wed, 10 Feb 2021 17:28:41 GMT